DeKALB – Finally, everything came together for the Northern Illinois volleyball team in Saturday's third set against No. 3 Southern California.
After coming just three points away from winning the first two sets, the Huskies' passing was on point throughout the third, their defense was stout and they maintained the level of consistency that is crucial to beating a top program. The Huskies lost the match, 3-1, but taking a set from a top team is certainly something they can run with.
“It was huge,” said middle blocker Sarah Angelos, who had 12 kills in the match. “I was definitely pumped up, we were all screaming. … It was awesome to take a set off of them.”
Saturday's game wasn't the Huskies' first tussle with a nationally-ranked team – they took then No. 23 Ohio State to a fifth set a week ago.
But Southern California was a different, even bigger animal.
The Trojans (6-0), who made the national quarterfinals last season, played six players 6-2 and above during the match. The Huskies (3-3) have just four such players on their roster. Just competing, though, wasn't necessarily good enough for coach Ray Gooden.
“At times, we did some positive things,” Gooden said. "To be a top-five program, you have to do it all the time, and we just came up a little bit short. But I thought we did a good job of competing with them.”
The Huskies and Trojans were tied, 22-22 in the first set and 21-21 in the second, but both times, USC went on to win by three.
But in the third set, Angelos racked up five kills, and the Huskies took a 17-9 lead. The Trojans closed the gap to 19-17, but three kills from Angelos led NIU on a 6-2 run to close out the set.
NIU fell behind midway through the fourth set and could never recover in a 25-16 loss. The Huskies would go on to defeat Belmont, 3-1, in their second match Saturday.
Throughout the season, Gooden has taken the refrain of “no moral victories,” and he certainly didn't rejoice after the USC match.
“We talked about it in the locker room and said, 'Hey, it's not about the moral victory. We lost [the first two sets by three], but we're capable of doing well against them. We are,' " Gooden said. “We just had to believe that. We did that in the third set.”
But the Huskies learned plenty about themselves that may serve them down the road, including the fact that they can hang with almost anyone.
“We got a lot better today I think, just with the experience of this game, knowing that we can play with one of the top teams in the country and win games from them,” Angelos said. “That's a big confidence boost, and as long as we play our game and do what we do best, which is playing fast and transitioning fast, I think we can hang with anyone.”